Learning to ‘be with’ rather than ‘be for’

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A couple of weeks ago we had our Clergy Conference looking at the theme of tackling poverty. We were helped in our reflections by a series of talks from Rev’d Dr Sam Wells – vicar of St Martin in the Fields (you probably know him from Thought for the Day!) He wrote a book called The Nazareth Manifesto and in it he proposes that the heart of the gospel is that ‘God is with us’. He told us at our conference that God is primarily concerned with being with us, not for us. He suggested that ‘with’ is the most important word in theology and ethics. The Israelites had to learn when in exile that God was still with them. God is with Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the fiery furnace – they are not rescued from the fire, God is with them in the fire (the fire representing Babylon). When we come to the New Testament, Jesus is announced as the one who is Immanuel – meaning, God with us.

After unpacking this a little more Sam then suggested a matrix  to help us to think about how approach our work in the community:

  • Working for
  • Working with
  • Being with
  • Being for

Usually, we tend towards the idea of ‘working for’ others; but in doing this the person we are ‘helping’ remains a stranger to us, a problem to be solved. Sam encouraged us to consider that surely the goal of Christian mission must be ‘being with’. Being with others enables us to receive from one another, enables us to see the ‘other’ as a loved human being rather than a ‘problem to be solved’.

We have a community project in our parish and over my time of being involved I am slowly learning to ‘be with’ rather than ‘work for’ the people I encounter. It is so tempting and easy to find something to do for another person and then give myself a pat on the back for doing a ‘good turn’. Being with requires much more humility, but the more I reflect on it, the more I find that that is the way of Jesus. When he meets Zacchaeus, Jesus doesn’t tell him that he needs to stop extorting money from his customers, Jesus says ‘I’m  coming to your house for tea’ (well, in the Sunday school song that’s what he says!) After being with one another and sharing food and drink Zacchaeus seems to discover for himself what he needs to do. When Jesus sends out the 72 he sends them to go and receive hospitality from others. Why is this not our model of mission? Probably because it is a lot easier to do things for others than to be with others, to be truly present to other people.

The last few weeks at our community project I have been doing jigsaws with one of our regular visitors. Each time I came away feeling guilty that I had sat for an hour doing a jigsaw. It felt like I was doing nothing. But actually I was ‘being with‘. I was experiencing companionship and so was my friend.

Maybe we’re not very good at allowing God to be with us like that as well? Maybe we have a skewed relationship with God if we constantly focus on God’s ‘working for’ or ‘being for’ us. God is of course ‘for us’ but the more I look at the ministry of Jesus, I realise that his focus is on ‘being with’ – the name of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, means ‘the one who comes alongside’. God’s very being as Trinity is about ‘with’, this surely says something about how we should view one another, interact with one another.

I think I need to go and do more of the jigsaw!

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